A Holocaust Survivor's Tale


Herta, Herbie and Erica


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By Gemma Blech

I have known Erica for a decade and only now, when she is past her mid-eighties, did I hear the amazing story of her survival in Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia. Erica is the chicest, neatest, smartest woman of any age that I know! Always immaculately turned out she rarely misses her time in the gym – where she complains, with the rest of us, about the draughts, the chilly water and the parking problems! Maybe the richest gem, I will always remember was following her hip replacement surgery a few years ago. This huge drama in her life passed relatively uneventfully, but once home she was a sent a French physiotherapist, to get her really moving again. This young man came to Erica's small, pristinely clean north Jerusalem apartment and taught her how to tango – as his method of rehabilitation!

Erica comes from a long line of ultra pious Jews, whose lives are amazingly recorded in a book, "And these are the generations 1040-2003", lovingly published by Erica's younger son, Tommy Lamm. Of all the photos of graves and old family members, and as many stories as Tommy could find, one remains in my memory. This is of Erica's grandmother, Omama Rosenberger, who worked in her husband's wholesale cattle business as well as being involved in numerous philanthropic works in the Jewish community of Bratislava. Sometimes as often as twice a day, she was called out in her capacity as a volunteer with the Chevra Kadisha [the Burial Society] to work as a 'messasic' – that is to wash and layout the bodies of the dead. When the Nazi's finally arrived to take this old lady off to Auschwitz, she went taking only a tachrichim [burial shroud] –'no pockets' she would say 'as you can take nothing with you' – and her Tehillim [book of Psalms]. She knew too well what cruel fate awaited her and of course she never came back.

As a young married woman Erica lived in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia with Herbie her husband and the young baby, George. Although forced into the ghetto and ever smaller rooms, she and her parents still had something of their own home, [or at least their own room and a communal bed] – and some money. Her older sister, Ilse, had managed to hide in the country, and pass herself off to the Germans as 'married', but Erica, Herbie, and toddler George remained in the city. Following Succot in 1943 the Nazi order came that Bratislava was to be made Judenrein – tho' the myth was spread that the Jews were being shipped off, 'for work in the East'. At 7.30am on the morning of the 'Aktion', Erica, still in her nightclothes, ran out of the house carrying the baby. He had long blond hair and, like her, did not 'look Jewish'. George's father managed to grab his tefillin (phylacteries) and Siddur [prayer book], as well as a sausage wrapped in a Jewish newspaper and together they banged on the door of a local coffee house. The owner of the shop screamed they were not open until 8.00am but Erica screamed back that the baby needed hot chocolate, as he would not stop crying! She opened up and let them in. Moments later the Nazis arrived asking if she had seen any Jews. She shrugged and just complained that the baby was crying and needed attention and amazingly, the Germans left, not 'seeing' the very obvious bag of Jewish possessions on the seat next to them. Erica said, 'it was as though God blinded them'.

This was only the first of a string of 'good luck' events which kept this young family alive and together. From the coffee house they escaped to a deserted cemetery, hiding behind vast tombstones if anyone came in sight. From there they could see the endless lines of Jews being taken off for shipment to Auschwitz, with soldiers with a gun at the ready, positioned every few yards along the appalling trail of humanity. Erica's younger sister, Magda, had already been taken. She had sadly obeyed an order that the young women should come to the 'meeting point'. Her father even naively accompanied her believing the lies of, 'work in the east'. She had been a teacher at the Jewish girls' day school.

But, Erica was now still hidden in the freezing cemetery, having escaped the latest roundup. Suddenly she had the inspiration that, 'they should go to Switzerland'. Of course it was a mad idea, but at 11.00pm at night they turned up on the doorstep of the Swiss Ambassador, asking for help! Finally, after much pleading, they were let in and the ambassador's wife, [who had no children of her own], made a plan. They could hide in a room she would give them, but they must never be seen or heard by the ambassador, as that would compromise his standing with the German authorities. So, for over 2 months she fed the family and even brought in other Jews on the run!

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from the December 2007 Chanukah Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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